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Every teacher's career is a journey of discovery that begins with rookie insecurities and moves toward self-confidence and understanding. When Susan Van Kirk drove into little Monmouth, Illinois, in 1968-straight out of college, with her teaching degree in hand-she thought she was ready to teach English and speech to high school students. She ...
Every teacher's career is a journey of discovery that begins with rookie insecurities and moves toward self-confidence and understanding. When Susan Van Kirk drove into little Monmouth, Illinois, in 1968-straight out of college, with her teaching degree in hand-she thought she was ready to teach English and speech to high school students. She didn't realize that, for the rest of her career, she would both teach and be taught by a town, a school, and the students who entered her life.
A veteran of thirty-four years in public high school teaching, Van Kirk will take you on a passionate and unforgettable journey through one teaching life. Meet her students and experience the events that molded a rookie teacher into a veteran. This montage of stories covers the years 1968 to 2008; they describe her early fears about classroom discipline, plots to overthrow "the rookie," handing drug overdoses, the devastating first student death, and a challenge to a major Kurt Vonnegut book in her classroom.
I never imagined that I could get lost trying to find the college library in a tiny town of ten thousand souls known as the Maple City. It was the year 1963, my junior year in high school, when I first drove into the small town of Monmouth, located in west central Illinois, twenty miles from the Mississippi River.
The city square-which was actually a circle-was bisected by Main Street going north and south and by Broadway to the east and west. Coming in from the north, I turned off the square going west. Once again I found myself in corn and bean fields, heading out of town without a college in sight and no large buildings other than grain bins. So I backtracked and drove onto the square/circle, this time turning south. I passed a number of stores, the Rivoli Theatre, and a fire station, but once again I ended up back in the corn fields. No college.
Did I stop and ask directions? Why would I do that? In a town that had streets named A Street, B Street, C Street, and First and Second avenues, how could a person get lost? So I tried driving east from the square/circle and eventually discovered college buildings.
I had no idea, as a sixteen-year-old, that I was passing the very locations that would become landmarks in my future life. During my aimless, where-is-that-college journey, I drove by three houses on Broadway where I would live, and I passed within a block of the high school where I'd spend thirty-four years of my life. On my trip back to the square from the west end of town, I ventured by a Roman Catholic church whose manger scene would lose a Wise Man to the clutches of one of my mischievous future students. Near that church, the Maple City Dairy would provide mouthwatering peach ice cream when I was pregnant with my daughter, and on warm summer nights my son would ride his tricycle to the dairy while I walked along behind. It would be a half block from our second home. I didn't realize then that the dairy's owner, the Petersen family, would leave an enduring imprint on my heart. Driving east from the square, I passed the Critser & Stansell law offices, owned by the parents of two of my early students who would come into my thoughts in astonishing ways. I finally found the Monmouth College library by accessing the campus from East Broadway and happily lost myself in research for a Civil War paper I was writing on the Underground Railroad. After my sojourn at the library, I drove east again, passing Benner's grocery store-later to be called Giant's-which would be the hilarious scene of my reunion so many years later with another student, Jack Harvey. Leaving town I noticed a sign that announced a local hospital where the ambulance would take one of my students after she had a brush with death in my classroom. So many places and people from Monmouth would become a part of me. But now, in 1963, they were all in my future, and I had to finish high school and college before I could discover this town again.
I moved to Monmouth in the summer of 1968, after graduating from college and getting married, to begin my first teaching job because my husband was already teaching nearby. I talked my way into a job teaching English and speech and directing plays at Monmouth High School. As a history major/ English minor in college, I had multiple hours of theatre work, so I assured George Pape, the high school principal, that I could teach what he needed, and he hired me. I felt he had made a wise decision, of course.
The first year I taught at MHS, I also directed the play Our Town by Thornton Wilder. Wilder's narrator, the Stage Manager, explained that knowing about our town involved economics, social issues, and politics. The same was true of my understanding of Monmouth.
Growing up in Galesburg, fifteen miles to the east, I knew nothing about the farming industry-I considered myself a "city girl"-and Monmouth's economy was based on agriculture. Now I realize that growing up in a town of thirty-eight thousand isn't exactly the definition of a "city girl," but you have to understand that I hadn't done much traveling. Despite driving by cornfields all my life, I didn't know a combine from a cultivator, and my liberal arts education hadn't included agriculture. In Monmouth, that sector supported three banks, a savings and loan, a farm credit agency, three implement dealers and an implement manufacturer, feed and grain dealers, a livestock sales barn, a frozen food locker, and a major farm supply retailer called Brown, Lynch, Scott. While I was one generation removed from my mother's farm family, I did know luscious crops of corn and beans when I saw them. And, proud of myself, I even recognized the John Deere logo. That was, however, the sum total of my agricultural knowledge.
As for industry, the town boasted several businesses. A pottery, a boat manufacturing company, a meat-packing plant, and a dog food manufacturer were the chief industries in the town. In fact, a huge tower on the south side of town would always be known as the "Wells elevator," a lasting symbol of the Wells dog food company.
Like the last act in Thornton Wilder's play, families who were early founders inhabited the local cemeteries, and their descendants still lived in the area. The names on the tombstones memorialized people who had migrated to the Midwest to start both a college and a town. Many of their descendants would occupy desks in my classroom.
The context of my future students' lives seemed more like that of the 1950s. Family life in Monmouth revolved around the homes, the churches, and the schools. My earliest students grew up in a town where kids had paper routes to earn spending money, rode bikes or walked to school by themselves, played outside all day without parental worry or Amber alerts, and had moms at home to fix lunch. At night they joined in games of kick-the-can, and on special days, like the Fourth of July, they attended patriotic parades and ceremonies. By the time I drove into town to begin my job, twenty churches, representing fourteen denominations, graced the various streets. Those churches provided opportunities for kids and families in youth groups, sports teams, and scouting.
I felt I had moved onto the set of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet television show.
On the evening news, the families of Monmouth watched reports of the Vietnam War and worried about their older sons or brothers. They witnessed protests on the local college campus, voted largely conservative Republican, and just shook their heads at those protesting hippies on the news. Churches, banks, and gas stations dominated the choice corners of town, with bars mostly south of the square/ circle. Occasionally, I heard gossip about someone who was "different," but it was decades before anyone would talk about gay liberation, and closets would be for clothes rather than for coming out. Despite the era of civil rights, black and white interaction in Monmouth was slight and the Hispanic population almost nonexistent. The women's movement was understood by students only as younger teachers mentioned it in the schools, and divorce happened occasionally but was discussed in hushed tones.
Like many a small town existing in cornfields, the inhabitants of Monmouth created their own entertainment. Little Lions League and the Motor League provided baseball, and the YMCA hosted basketball. Many of the townspeople cheered from the stands at the college games each season. Dances took place at the Farm Bureau and the YMCA, and skating parties occurred monthly at the Rainbow Roller Rink for the elementary kids. The Rivoli Theatre scheduled only "wholesome movies," and kids could go for thirty-five cents and pay a nickel for candy. (This is where I should be humming the theme song from Leave It to Beaver.)
Socio-economic layers and racial divides were well defined in the 1960s, and I was familiar with them from my own hometown. Monmouth had a poorer side of town called the "South Side." Swimming was an example of the social divisions enforced in both overt and covert ways. Students from poorer families often went to Citizen's Lake to swim in the summer, while more middle-class families sent their kids to Lake Warren for swimming, boating, and camping. Kids from wealthier families swam at the more exclusive country club. After I had lived there for a while, I realized that neighborhood schools perpetuated these class issues. But despite their attending one of four neighborhood elementary schools, most of my students spent their last six years together in junior high and high school.
For someone like me who had attended a highly liberal college and strongly supported liberal social causes, this new job would be an exercise in learning to keep my mouth shut.
My mantra at that moment: "I have a job! Someone actually wants me!"
Then reality set in. Remember, this was 1968.
Obviously, the school had no computers, no calculators, no Xerox machines, and no well-developed curriculum plan. I had to figure grades by hand, using long division, and I was given a set of textbooks containing black-and-white photos and extremely small print ... oh, and a key to my room. That was it.
Looking back at that beginning, I remember vividly all that I had to learn. Technology came in the form of 16 mm projectors that took tedious practice and a lot of swearing to thread. The first time I showed multiple reels of a movie, I ended up rewinding it backwards and inside out. Two of the other teachers helped me unroll hundreds of feet of film throughout my room, trying to get it back on the reels correctly. We also had heavy, gray metal opaque projectors that I could hardly lift, which were the forerunners of overheads. To print multiple copies, we used something called a ditto machine. You wrote or typed what you wanted to copy on two-layered papers, the bottom paper having ink on it. If you forgot to take out the thin brown paper in the middle that protected the master copy on the top, you had to write it all over again. Then you tore off the master copy, clipped it onto the circular drum of the ditto machine, and cranked a handle to make multiple copies. The drum contained a breath-stopping, clear-colored vile liquid that had to be refilled through a small hole in the top of the drum. If you accidently left your master copy clipped to the machine while refilling the drum, you often ruined the copy with excess, spilled liquid. It was an evil machine, and I often cursed it, hoping it would live out its last days buried in a swamp. Of course, this probability wasn't too likely in Illinois.
Despite this small-town atmosphere, I was always aware of world events and pop culture during my years in college and my first fall in Monmouth. Watching the local and national news on TV, I was mesmerized, because 1968 was a violent year of political assassinations, the Democratic Convention in Chicago, protesting flower children, and Vietnam. The radio was on and I listened to the latest songs while I graded papers. The soundtrack in my head was from Hair, the Stones, Smokey Robinson, CCR, the Supremes, Cream, Simon and Garfunkel, Grace Slick and the Jefferson Airplane, Steppenwolf, and Neil Young. In fact, I would often hum "Jumpin' Jack Flash" on my way to school. This running sound track was a far cry from the theme song of Leave It to Beaver. And that route to school was only about a block.
On Broadway sat huge old mansions that were built during the earlier days of the town. My husband and I first lived in an apartment in one of those old mansions. Built by the McCullough family and later known as the John Allen house, the huge home had been divided into five apartments, and we had the entire first floor. My husband would drive our car to his teaching job in the Warren district, and I could simply walk the tree-lined block to school.
During those years when I taught at Monmouth High School, the student population would fluctuate between five hundred and seven hundred. Previous to my grand entry into town as a real teacher, the school district had broken into two totally separate districts. Rural districts surrounded the city school where I taught. One, called Warren, was begun by disgruntled taxpayers and farmers who formed their own district because they wanted more say in how their tax money was spent, and they took their tax money from farm acreages with them. This happened just prior to my glorious arrival, so I would be teaching mainly "city" kids-but small-town city kids.
Over the course of my career, I saw many changes to both the town and the school district. In 1974, an arsonist burned an entire block of the downtown in the middle of the night, causing a six-alarm response, and I would peacefully sleep through it all, only two blocks away. That alone should indicate how exhausting teaching could be. A new highway appeared between Monmouth and Galesburg, updating the two-lane, curvy connection between the two towns.
Despite these updates, people and stores eventually left the town, and it slid economically downward, while the college continued to grow after the '70s and to help Monmouth survive. The school district switched from neighborhood elementary schools to attendance centers in order to save money, and eventually the Monmouth schools consolidated with a smaller district to the south in Roseville, ending forever the history of Monmouth High School, except in its graduates' memories.
No longer would their colors be maroon and gold, and their team names would switch from Zippers to Titans. This economically necessary consolidation would happen after I retired in 2002. The town changed and so did I. Over those many years my edges were smoothed and my sometimes abrasive opinions learned a new word: tact.
The first year I taught in the high school, my pay was $4,800 gross-but it was my first real job! By the time the district removed union dues, pension, and taxes, I didn't have much left. But I should repeat: it was my first real job!
For this princely sum, I taught five English and speech classes, directed a class play, helped guide a speech team, and organized a traveling debate team. It was exhausting and exhilarating because I was doing what I had wanted to do since eighth grade, when I first imagined my future career: I was a teacher.
And why? I always thought I could do something to change the world back in the 1960s when I was studying in college. Sure, it was a naïve idea, but you have to remember that I came of age when John F. Kennedy was advising me to "ask not" what my country ... well, you get the idea. I could spend my days enhancing peoples' lives in this life I was given, however short or long. I could work as a cooperating teacher with college students who wanted to teach, and I could change the world, one teacher at a time. It seemed to me that education was the key to making life better. Reading and writing-both skills I loved-could be passed on to others. Why couldn't I take something that I felt passionate about and help someone else feel the same way? The "I" is what consumed my thinking as a twenty-one-year-old. Back then, I couldn't begin to imagine the students who would come into my life and change forever both me and my thinking.
* * *
But I didn't know any of this on that 1963 visit when I attempted to find the college library. Five years later, when I drove into town on the two-lane, impossible-to-pass-farm-equipment highway, college degree in hand and teaching certificate to register, I was twenty-one, just married, and ready to tackle whatever a new teacher had to do. I was driving 60 mph behind the farm equipment-combine or cultivator?-and passing whenever I could. I was sure I had the answers to what I needed to know about teaching five classes a day in a real high school. Passionate, fired up, amazingly young, and full of energy, I was ready!
I had no idea what was coming or how naïve I was.
Excerpted from THE EDUCATION OF A TEACHER by SUSAN VAN KIRK Copyright © 2010 by Brakelight, LLC. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted September 12, 2010
It made me laugh, it made me cry-no kidding. It was a great perspective about the teaching field, but so much more. It was a reminder for everyone to realize the difference they make, with every individual they meet throughout their lifetime - priceless!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.